Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wanted: Experienced vocalist with good typing skills

One of my choral groups is looking for ways to streamline the budget. We choristers are paid for our services; the organization certainly doesn’t want to give us a pay cut. But, the organization is also spread so thin taking care of the day to day stuff required to keep the engine running (coordinating concert logistics, promotion, personnel management) that they do not have enough time to devote to long term development (i.e. grant-writing and fund raising). It was proposed that the choristers take on more of the day to day business in order to give the business-folk more time and energy to secure the groups’ future.

This proposal wasn’t outlandish for the group. Over half of the artists have been members for more than one season- many for 3, 4, 5… even 11. Their loyalty and commitment goes beyond the paycheck received. The average singer in this group is also an accomplished over-achiever who excels in subjects outside of music, and have many other skills to bring to the table. I am sure that people are going to step up.

But, all professional choral groups are hurting. I think that the group described above is atypical in that it is both professional, yet commands an amateur’s loyalty from its employees. By amateur, I mean “involved through love”, not “involved, though lacking in the skills dictating remuneration”. Also, this group is established enough that each artist can be relatively secure in their future employment.

This model cannot work for groups that

  • Hire unionized artists
  • Make no guarantees about future employment for artists
  • Really pay far too little to demand anything else from their employees
  • In general, work in the “pick-up” format- that is, the group really doesn’t exist outside of the concentrated time period surrounding performances

In short, the organization must first succeed in earning the loyalty of their singers before stepping up their demands, and only organizations with security can really earn this. It’s a case of bad Catch-22 for nascent groups.

Having said that, let's consider volunteer choral societies. Not only are budgets "streamlined" by having a largely volunteer labor corps, but singers often contribute more to the group than their voices. Many of these societies charge their singers a quarterly fee, which makes for a big chunk of the operating budget. These volunteers, these "amateurs" in both senses of the word, gladly pay for the privilege of creating beautiful music and performing in high-profile venues for high-visibility events. However, there are limits to bringing this model over to the professional singing world. First off, the reverse-flow of income is completely out of the question (although some professional non-profit choruses can ask their employees to return part of their fee as a tax deductible donation). But, why is it that the volunteer society member is willing to give not only their money and non-musical efforts to the group as well as their time and musical talents? Why is this paradigm completely moot in struggling professional groups?

Another professional-yet-developing group that I am in is trying to put together a volunteer guild, following the model of established groups like American Bach Soloists (link to volunteer page). Such volunteers can run concerts, get word out by pounding the pavement and putting together mailers, give room & board to artists traveling in from out of town, etc. The guild members are rewarded not only with warm and fuzzy appreciation, but can be given complimentary season subscriptions and other material regalia.

Going back to the first proposed model for streamlining choral organizations; is this a necessary survival step in today’s zero-margin cut-throat corporate world? When does this model work? What are other alternatives? What have been your experiences with finding warm bodies to do the grunt work necessary to keep an organization running?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

In C Major: A wonderful on-line calendar

"Dave in C Major" runs a beautiful on-line web calendar (In C Major) for fine arts music in California, Oregon and Washington State. I really like that he creates a category for family-oriented music. I hope to learn more about his amazing operation. Meanwhile, other major arts calendars should be humbled at how thorough, informative, clear and beautiful a job Dave has done.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Richard Sparks on programming

Richard Sparks, a well-regarded, internationally reknowned Seattle-based choral conductor, is the man to listen to about both the artistry and business of choirs. He currently is Artistic Director and Conductor of Pro Coro Canada in Edmonton, and last year, directed the debut concert of the Bay Area's own Chorlalis, to much acclaim. He is the author of the blog, Richard Sparks - Music, Conducting, Choirs, and recently made some cogent observations about choral programming. With his permission, I re-post his entry below

January 12, 2008: Programming II
So, last time I talked about the importance of thinking of repertoire in programming from the standpoint of the needs of the chorus and individual singers to maximize their growth.

But what about the needs of the audience? Or of the institution that supports you if you’re not an independent choir (or your board, if it is)?

You can’t forget about those needs (or at least you shouldn’t if you want to keep your job!), but the challenge is to balance those with what the choir needs to do.

Again, your own situation will determine much of this. A church choir serves a specific function (which requires certain kinds of repertoire), but this can vary from an Episcopal/Anglican choir that draws almost exclusively from British Anglican traditions to a choir that does primarily praise music . . . and everything in between.

School choirs have their own educational requirements that may vary considerably. Some public schools in the US may find it difficult to do much sacred music, or perhaps have pressure to “entertain.” There are always external expectations (tradition, administrative, parents) to deal with as well.

Most choirs have repertoire expectations associated with them (sometimes clearly laid out, sometimes not), from those that specialize in music of a certain period or ethnic background, to choirs with a distinct educational purpose. You may also have other expectations: an annual Messiah performance, a spring pops concert, a tour program, or what have you. All of this has to be taken into account.

Pro Coro Canada, my ensemble based in Edmonton, Alberta, is a professional chamber choir with a 6 or 7-concert series. I conduct 4 concerts, our associate conductor conducts one, and guests take the others. Since we’re an independent choir that needs sufficient ticket income to survive, I have to create programs that will be marketable and will appeal to our audience. While I’m given the power by the board to make all programming choices, with that goes the responsibility to make sure I draw audiences, too. That’s where balancing my needs (or desires) and the choir’s needs with what the audience is willing to hear. In the long run, I won’t keep my job if audiences disappear and no one’s happy with the music we do.

Like most of you, we do a Christmas concert that has fairly broad appeal each year. We also have the tradition of a Good Friday concert—this doesn’t have to be specifically music for Lent, Good Friday, or Easter, but should fit generally—thus we’ve done a number of different Requiems, Bach’s Mass in B Minor Ivan Moody’s Passion and Resurrection, a wonderful commissioned work by Alberta composer Allan Bevan (Nou goth sonne under wood—the audience came to hear the Mozart Requiem, but Allan’s was the piece that got the extended standing ovation), and Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil. As a professional choir supported by the Canada Council, we need to do significant Canadian works each season. Additionally, for the past number of years we’ve had a grant from the Wirth Foundation for Central European Studies to support doing all the late masses of Haydn, along with works by other composers from central Europe. There are then a lot of “givens” in any season I plan. I also want guest conductors to bring something special to the choir (thinking of the choir’s long-term growth, remember?) and I therefore want them to do music they love and do well. I have to advise them (since they don’t know the choir or audience expectations) and they’ll have budget limitations, but I try to give them as much freedom as I can. Recent guest conductors have included Maria Guinand, Anders Eby, Gary Graden, Ivars Taurins, and Leonard Ratzlaff, all who bring something important to Pro Coro and the Edmonton community.

Every one of you has “givens” as well that are necessary and important in your repertoire planning/programming. I know that while much will be laid out for you, you shouldn’t forget to balance those with the needs of your choir for their own growth as well.

Yes, there’s still more . . .
Link to original posting

Monday, January 7, 2008

Working with high school singers: a win-win-win situation

One of my choirs is entertaining the following proposal: feature a local high school choir as guest artist in our upcoming concert sets. They would be invited to sing a couple of numbers- hopefully one in collaboration with us. Here is why this is brilliant, from least to most important
  1. Fill more seats (at the very least, their chauffeurs, oh excuse me, I mean, parents, will have to attend!)
  2. Create a more varied program.
  3. Show the kids that its cool to sing when you are an adult- its not just something to do when you are in school.
  4. In our case, teach the kids about early music, which they may not get so much of in their choral program (check out kat's comments about pop music in high school choirs)
  5. Use choral music to build community.
My group has pretty high performing standards, so we'll have to make sure that we give the kids an assignment that they will excel at (while all the while having fun!). I am confident that this is possible, and look forward to working with some fresh, young talent.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Clash of the Choirs comments

Our wonderful new contributor, kat, has shared some observations made by herself and others on NBC's reality mini-series, Clash of the Choirs, which aired the week before Christmas. What did you all think of the show, and what impact could it make on classical choral music? I only watched the first 80% of the first episode (skipping the narrative to get to the performances), so I'll base my comments on that.

p.s. You are also encouraged to respond to this same topic in kat's following post, although she opens the floor up to ALL choral issues.

Battle of the Choirs

Hey there, Kat here, taking over other people’s blogs in order to rant.
I'm a singer, and while not primarily a choral singer, that happens too.

Anyway, an amzing woman named Maggie Jochild recently offered a searing review of NBC’s Clash of the Choirs. I raked Mags over the coals for one sentence: “I learned that choirs don't have to sound like badly homogenized eunuchs (or Mormons)”

Anyway, after demanding an explanation (which was really rather rude of me, but I hope Maggie will forgive), Maggie asked some really interesting questions about the nature of choral music and its origins. I thought it would be interesting from choral and non-choral perspectives because I think a lot of musicians exist in a somewhat sheltered bubble of other musicians, and we forget that the outside world may not look at things the way we do. It’s important to look at things from the other side.

Choralista has considered the shift/decline in interest in choral music, and how that will work with the growing number of choirs (particularly in the Bay Area), and looking at Maggie’s thoughts could be really valuable to us as we plan concerts.

Here were Maggie’s questions:
One thing I realized as a result is that the groups I was comparing the TV shows' groups to, that I've heard in person, were either church-based (which probably have cultural and religious strictures on their sound that have nothing to do with music) or, in fact, actually labeled as choruses or chorales. Without hitting Wikipedia, I'm willing to bet I'm mixing apples with oranges, aren't I?

In addition, after thinking about it, I realize "eunuch" is an extremely poor choice of words. Partly because, on looking it up, I see it refers only to the castration of males instead of what I was (vaguely) aiming for, the removal of earthiness from human voice. Sex is not really the issue. Except -- I'm still confused here, clearly -- it does seem to me that the glorification of boy choirs has a great deal to do with seeing them as pre-sexual males. My mother went gaga over the Vienna Boys' Choir and her comments focused on how "sweet" they sounded, how "pure" and "untouched". Yikes. When, in fact, they sounded to me exactly the same as girls' choirs. What was so special about boys sounding like girls?

I DO want to hear choirs giving me a sound I can't experience another way, but still clearly human, rich, evocative. I'm not sure I know what "one voice" means to you. I felt like during the first performance by the LaBelle choir, where there was a sort of call and response, two halves of the choir singing back and forth to each other, that I was hearing something radically different and vibrant, enough to make me sit up and my blood start pumping. I kept looking for that every time they performed, and found it in between the sections where, yes, it was a soloist doing their shtick and getting back up.

I don't have the language to describe it, but I'm hoping you can elucidate further. Educate me, if you will.

America idolizes the perceived "amateur" but, well, they wind up sounding like Nick Lachey instead of Patti LaBelle, don't they?

But if I'm going to see a nationally televised show, I want to see professionals knocking my socks off.

Sooooo much good stuff to think about and consider. I hope I can shed some light into this, and I’ve taken over Choralista as well, in the hopes that if I leave anything out (or get it horribly wrong), I’ll be corrected.

Let’s start with definitions. In a strict sense of things, “Choir” refers to a group of people singing together, but also refers to the part of the church from which they sing (also spelled “quire”). Hence, choirs are church ensembles. The word doesn’t always get used that strictly anymore. A chorus or chorale is the same concept, of an ensemble of singers, but is more general and does not have the church connotation.

This is a technical description, though. Generally, chorus/choir/chorale are all pretty interchangeable, and refer to groups in which there is more than voice on a part.

The big question seems to be: Does choral music have to be classical or religious. The adverts for Clash of the Choirs said something about wanting to move choral music beyond those definitions. The trouble is that that’s not possible. In the context of Western music (which is the only kind I’m qualified to write about), the Church invented choral music. It grew out of Gregorian chant, in which all the monks/priests/whoever would chant in unison. In the middle ages, a second sung line was added, then another, then another, and eventually you get polyphonic choral music, which is made up of multiple lines all functioning more or less independently while singing at the same time.

We know about multi-part secular music, but off of the top of my head, I don’t know whether there is any evidence of Mediaeval/Renaissance choirs singing it. As far as I’ve read, it would have been printed for home use (got 4 people over for dinner, why not sing some madrigals!). Public performances of secular choral music seemed to come later.

With polyphonic music, all of the voice parts get more or less equal treatment. What Celeste and I were annoyed by in Clash of the Choirs was that the groups would give all the interesting music to one or two singers, and everyone else would stand behind and fill in the blanks. The precedent for that is in doo-wop or girl groups, not choral music. We’re not saying that this style is not legitimate, just that it’s not an accurate representation of choral music. The title conflates two very different styles.

In this modern day and age, do we have to have choral music that is religious or classical? Well, actually, yes. You’ve either got classical (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the 9th symphony, Mahler symphonies, madrigals) or religious (the masses of Mozart and Bach, Gospel, hymns, praise songs). Pop music has really not created any real choral music. There are ensembles, but mostly small ensembles of soloists, not lots-of-folks-on-a-part choirs.

What has happened, as “classical” and “popular” music have grown apart and the audience for “classical” has shrunk, is that choruses have tried arranging pop music for their own purposes. In high school the directors always give you Billy Joel or someone, arranged for 4 part harmony so that you’ll stop complaining about all the god references in the rest of the music. There’s a ton of pop songs that have been taken apart and reworked for a choir, which has always struck me as kind of strange. If I want to listen to Billy Joel, I’ll do that. I won’t put on Chanticleer-singing-Billy-Joel…

Moving on to the issue of homogeny within a choir: Ideally, you want each voice part to be made up of singers who sound similar. You want voices that “blend.” This usually means voices that are clear in tone, “pure” as opposed to dark or muddy. Generally, you also want voices that have little vibrato, which supposedly obscures the purity of a note (I’m more opera centric, and may or may not agree with this, so I’ll just move on). Why do we need this?? Well, if you have people with really individual, unique (not eunuch!) voices, that’s what you’ll hear. The effect will be of the voices themselves, which will obscure the over-arching lines and effects that the composer wants from the group as a whole. The best choirs seem to be made up of colorless voices, so that the color and tone of the group and of the composition, can come to the forefront.
In my opinion, the modern Scandinavian choirs are tops at this. There are some really innovative, avant-garde composers up there who take choral sound to the outer reaches of what you thought possible with vocal music.

The Anglophile Cambridge lovers will undoubtedly flog me for that last paragraph. I’m an alto, though, remember that before you try to beat me down!!!!

You can listen to an opera chorus (group o’ big voiced opera singers singing something like the “Anvil Chorus”) versus any group directed by Eric Ericsson for the differences between ensemble singing and choral singing.

This is what your Mum was probably referring to, Maggie. The Vienna Boys Choir (and just about any other boy choir) tout their singers “pure” voices as a way to convey the composer’s brilliance, rather than the brilliance of a particular performing artist. The focus is on the creation rather than the interpreters.

So, the boychoir issue. I saved this one for last, so as to rant more. Originally, in the early days of Catholicism, women were forbidden from singing in church. The exception would have been convents, but for the outside world, it was “screw you and your X chromosomes.” This presented music-minded clergy and choir directors with a problem. They wanted multi-part music, but couldn’t get women to sing the higher parts. So, in order to replicate the high voices of female singers, they brought in young boys. The started a really long tradition of boys singing in church. It spawned the British Cathedral School tradition, in which the large churches would use students from their schools in the choirs. I know several male singers who grew up in cathedral choir schools and are still dealing with the consequences as adults. We all know about the horrors committed at many a British boys’ school right? Well, add to that being in the choir and getting special treatment from all the teachers (like not having to take sports and having loads of free time while others are in classes), and imagine how they were treated by their fellow students. Loads of bullying, to say the least. Plus, the choir traditions don’t do anything in the way of actually teaching vocal technique, so these guys have tons of vocal problems, as well. They’re held up as having been professional singers since they were kids, but are not nearly as good, technically, as singers who started as teenagers or even young adults.
Anyway, aside from my friends’ experiences, there’s the sexism issue as well. Supporters of boychoir traditions insist that somehow boys’ voices are higher, purer, generally more special than girls’. And yes, Maggie, they frequently sound exactly the same. The first British cathedral choir to include girls (and even then, I think there are separate girls’ and boys’ groups, I don’t think they’re mixed) only did so in 1991.
“Tradition” is a great excuse, and gets attached to all sorts of silly practices. At some point, and I’m not sure when, some church dudes realized that if you castrate little boys, their voices never change, and they can sing high for all their lives…don’t ask me how they decided this was a good idea, I’d rather not think about it…anyway, castration prevented the larynx from doing whatever it does when boys go through puberty. The voice would stay high, but would change in other ways. Apparently, castrati had the small, very flexible vocal chords of children, but would grow to be very tall and barrel chested, so they would have lung capacity for days as well as high notes…their voices were said to be quite unique and interesting, which would have been a far cry from the colorless, “pure” sound of boys. So you do get your eunuchs, Maggie, but apparently they were really thrilling to listen to.

Basically, I think that children’s choirs are great as an activity for your kid, but there is no surviving reason to maintain the overly glorified boychoir stuff, with all its anachronisms. Oh wait, religions love anachronisms, don’t they…oops…

So, wanting to hear a unique choral sound that still has a warmth and humanity…Patti LaBelle’s group seemed to take its style from Gospel, which does use call and response as a device. I’m not a connoisseur of Gospel, so I can’t give you specific examples to look for. I think that this is where I’ll open the floor for suggestions. What recordings get you all hot and bothered, folks?

My favorite pieces are from the Renaissance, and are polyphonic. Renaissance polyphony allows for some really cool word painting and other effects. Look for Italian madrigals if you want secular. Lots of sexual innuendo will ensue (“The sweet and white swan dies while singing…”)

I hope that I’ve managed to answer some of the questions, and look forward to hearing more from anyone who’s got more info.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming…..